As scientists, we strive to communicate complex ideas to diverse audiences while seeming both confident and enthusiastic.  No wonder public speaking can be overwhelming and fear-inducing.  Could we all be better communicators if we practiced our improv skills?
Improvisation comedy can help you learn to better communicate through thinking fast, trusting yourself, and connecting with your audience.

Six-time Emmy award winning actor Alan Alda says yes.  Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 14 years, where he interviewed cutting-edge scientists.  He saw so many scientists lapse into jargon-filled lectures that left the audience behind that he saw the need for scientists to be better communicators.  He started a center at Stony Brook University in New York where he teaches doctors and scientists how to talk about complicated ideas.  Alda insists that improvisation skills will not change scientists into comedians, but will teach them to communicate better by thinking fast, trusting themselves, and connecting with their audience.  

Here are some tips that Alda teaches scientists to improve their communication skills through improv.           

  1. Avoid using jargon or buzzwords.  This one seems obvious, but it is easier said than done.  Alda calls it “the curse of knowledge.”  Scientists know so much about a particular research subject that it’s easy for them to forget what it’s like to be a beginner and slip into jargon.  At the 2017 World Science Festival, Alda and comedian Tina Fey hosted a workshop where a scientist explained their research while Tina Fey held a buzzer.  Every time Fey didn’t understand, she pressed the buzzer and the speaker had to think of a new way to explain the concept.  Try this exersice with a friend or family member who isn’t familiar with your research.
  2. Pay attention to your audience.  Alda explains that improv exercises are all dependent on observing other people.  As a young man, Alda made a game of looking into the faces of people and trying to read their minds based on their facial expressions and body language.  He said this was remarkably helpful in allowing him to understand other people.  When you are able to read your audience, you will connect with them, and you can tell if they understand you.
  3. Nonsense will clear things up.  As scientists with a fear of embarrassing ourselves, we feel pressure to say exactly the right thing.  But Alda explains that much of communication is your tone of voice, the look on your face, and your body language.   An exercise he suggests is to practice your entire presentation in gibberish.  This helps you prepare to speak in public because it forces you to improve your nonverbal communication, to engage with your audience and to be more expressive with your body language.
    Alan Alda started the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University for scientists to learn to communicate with the public.
  4. Conquer fear through failure. Improv teaches you to abandon your fear of embarrassment.  Or maybe it just teaches you that if your worst fears come true, you will get through it and live to see another day. Overcoming your fear of embarrassment will not only make you a better public speaker, but will allow you to be more assertive.    

As scientists, we have stories to tell.  Alda’s main point is that improv can teach us to connect with our audience and tell them our story in a way that is understandable and relatable rather than spraying them with information, which will make us all better science communicators.  

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.


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